Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Popcorn for Pony Tails

I remember when Madison, almost 7, was an infant and I was learning to comb her hair. She had so much hair that I had little choice but to get started. I used to have my partner, Kim, hold her while I parted and combed, creating a headful of little pony tails. We then moved to the high chair where I could confine her while still having access to the entire head. When she became a toddler, we learned to turn on a movie and I would sit on the floor with Maddie in my lap. I will admit there were sometimes leg wrestling matches taking place on the floor, but all of this happened in the name of good hair.

Fast forward to 2009 and I am faced with a squirmy, tender headed, defiant 16 month old who does not like to have her hair combed. I tried the high chair and that didn't work. I tried having Kim hold her and that didn't work. I tried leg wrestling and that didn't work. How was I going to comb this child's hair?

POPCORN! The magic word is popcorn! Morgan will sit for as long as it takes to comb her hair so long as Kim is feeding her popcorn, which is much better than the dark chocolate M&M's we initially tried in a pinch. The peace has returned to the Valley of my home on Sunday nights. There is no more screaming, whining, or struggling. And Morgan does just fine too.

So for all you pink parents out there looking for the secret to styling your child's hair, look no further than your pantry and give ole Orville Redenbacher a try!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Racism in the Work Place

Whenever I teach the workshop The Top 10 Things Every White Parent Needs to Know When Raising African American Children, I talk about the existence of racism in our country. I explain that as white people, we may not be aware of racism if it weren't for the media. This is part of our white privilege - not having to be aware of racism. It is easy to see racism when you're talking about the Civil Rights Movement or South Africa. It isn't always easy to see the subtle forms of racism. I try to give examples in my workshop of the ways in which racism creeps into our lives, but I now have a GIANT example to share with the class I am teaching on Saturday at the Settlement Home.

I was working late Wednesday night when I overhead an employee use the phrase "white is right" in front of clients. My jaw dropped to my chest as I confirmed to myself what I just heard. I said to this employee, "I cannot believe you just said that out loud!" I turned to the clients and apologized for such an offensive statement. I was in total shock. It is 2009 and this 23 year old punk just perpetuated the most ignorant of beliefs! While I am a member of management, I am not his supervisor. In that moment, I wanted to cry, scream, yell and I am not ashamed to admit I wanted to hurt this kid. I was so mad. I was anything far from professional and I didn't trust myself to address the situation any further.

I knew I would fail if I tried to speak with him calmly about his statement because I was too emotional. I decided to speak with him the next morning when I could be more level headed. Of course, that didn't happen. I am, after all, a mama bear.

I thought about the situation all night, struggling with the appropriate way to handle the conversation. I knew for sure I could not maintain the same working relationship with him. I was horrified that A) he would say this out loud to a roomful of strangers in the workplace, including clients and B) that he could know me and my family and still repeat this statement. I guess that is also part of my white priviledge, being outraged in the face of racism and hell bent on doing something about it. During the night I remembered the line in our employee handbook regarding zero tolerance. In my opinion, his statement was grounds for dismisal.

This morning I asked to meet with the management team, of which I am a part. I explained what happened in my presence last night as we worked late. I explained how outraged I was. I went on to describe the ways I was now questioning my ability as the sales director to represent our product when I knew a biggot would greet the clients I was bringing to the business. My anger grew and grew as I recounted the story until I finally had to stop speaking to breathe.

Part of me wondered if I would feel this much outrage if I were not the mother of three African American children. I would hope, as a human being, I would be just as angry to hear such racist words from a co-worker. Much to my relief, the management team was equally outraged and this employee was terminated a few hours later based on the company's policy on tolerance and insubordination (that part had nothing to do with me. )

I feel better now. I know these people exist in the world. I know I am surrounded by racism. I know our country was created on a system of racial hieracrchy. I also know I don't have to work with it anymore. Or, at least, for now. My little piece of the world is a little more peaceful today and I pray this experience of losing his job will make my former co-worker re-evaluate his position on the browns and the pinks of this world. Score 1 for this pink parent!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Big Love for Dr. Steve

Dr. Steve is a therapist who specializes in attachment issues. I want to say his clientele is exclusively adoption related, but I could be wrong. It happens. For years I have listened to Dr. Steve lead discussions at COAC meetings and more recently I have sat at his feet for any morsal of adoption wisdom every Thursday morning. The man has probably been saying the exact same message for years, but I finally got it. Like, really, got it.

Dr. Steve says we have to find a place a agreement when our kids are activated. When I say activated, I mean acting out, overly emotional, out of control. Dr. Steve says I have to meet my kiddos where there are in the moment and just be with them. This is no easy task for a professional, habitual talker. In agreement mode, I can't fix anything. I just listen and love.

So, I find myself on the staircase with Madison in melt down mode. She won't let me hold her. She is saying things like we're not a real family because we're not all brown, only my sisters are my family. She calls herself dumb and a brat. My heart is breaking and I am struggling with what to do in this moment on the stairs while one of the loves of my life cries crockadile tears. And then I hear the voice of Dr. Steve. Find the place of agreement.

I close my mouth and just listen to what Madison says. I respond with statements like,

That must feel awful
You must feel very lonely
How sad

And suddenly Madison is crawling into my lap. She is letting me touch her, hold her. I tell her it is ok to be sad. I tell her we'll just sit here and be sad together for as long as it takes. We sit together for a couple of minutes until she jumps out of my lap and returns with possibly the longest children's book ever written (60+ pages) and hands it to me. I read every word.

The melt down is over. It ended as quickly as it started. We survived. Dr. Steve, in fact, does know what he is talking about and I will never approach an emotional situation the same way. I don't know when the next melt down will happen. I don't know where we will be or who will be watching, but I do know my mouth will stay closed more than it is open. Thank you, Dr. Steve, for helping me be a better mom. And I am sure Maddie will thank you too someday.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Being a Real Mom

Today my 6 year old was asked if my partner was her "real mom". Maddie responded with, "My real mom is sick and when she gets better, I'll go live with her."

Wow. Nobody teaches you how to answer these questions. There aren't any easy answers, especially when you adopt through CPS. We have fostered children over the years and explained to Maddie the parents of these children are sick and we're going to take care of them for a while until the parents feel better. I thought it was such a good answer and then it bites me in the ass today.

Obviously we will have a talk tonight about the issue of being a real mom and the idea Maddie will someday go to live with her real mom again. It breaks my heart to think about how much Maddie must miss that connection. It makes me want to cry to know I can't replace the connection. I can love my daughter to the moon and back every single day of her life; I can take care of her when she is sick; show up for every basketball game, dance recital and first day of school; I can wait up with a light on to hear about every date; I can drive her to college; and somehow give her away in marriage, but I can never replace the connection she shared for 7 months with a woman named Vanessa who wasn't prepared to be a mother.

My sweet baby is having adoption fantasies, wondering "what if" in her little head. I would have never known this unless we overheard a conversation like the one today. Maddie is so strong willed. She only tells you what she wants you to know. We used to naively think she was unaffected by her adoption because she came to live with us when she was 9 days old. Dr. Steve has now drilled it into our heads that no matter what age a child is adopted or placed with a family, they have already been traumatized by the separation experience. I could see it in our other kids, but not in Maddie.

So what do I want Maddie to know when we talk about this tonight?

1) I love you no matter what
2) It is ok to wonder what if and dream about your birth mom
3) It is ok to feel sad
4) It will not hurt me to answer your questions about Vanessa and it is ok to talk about her
5) I love you no matter what. Nothing you can do or say could make me stop loving you or change the fact that I am your mother too.

Today is just another day in the world of adoption. It definitely isn't for the faint of heart and I wouldn't have my life any other way. Maddie has always been the Guinea pig by the mere fact she is the oldest. I am sure my parents "experimented" with me in similar ways. I know I will be better prepared for McKenzie and Morgan's questions when it comes time for them to wonder what if ...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bringing Down the Braids

Well, the time has come to say good bye to the braids. I had Madison's long, curly locks braided before vacation on July 10. I even put the beads in myself! We have experienced 4 weeks of stress free mornings without the headache of combing hair, but this is the weekend when the braids must come down. Maddie loves her hair in braids, but has absolutely no desire to sit through the process again - ugh! She did really well for the first 2 hours of the process, but fell apart in hour 3 with plenty of tears, whines, and generally foul attitude. McKenzie sits through the process much better. Of course, McKenzie has 1/4 of the hair that Maddie does at this point in life.

So long braids! So long easy morning! So long purple and white beads! I hope to see you again very soon!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Birth Parents

I was sitting on the sofa in our game room loving on my kiddos before bed. I told Madison how thankful I am she is my daughter, how thankful I am her birthmom brought her into the world.

"Did my birth mom and dad die?" she asks.

"No they didn't."

"Are they still at the hospital?" she wants to know.

"No, they aren't."

"Do you know where they are?"

"No I don't know where they are. I know they were very young and they weren't ready to be parents. I know they wanted you to have the best possible life so they prayed to God for a family who could give you what they couldn't. I know they wanted you to have a nice home with plenty of clothes and food and diapers. And you have that in our home."

"Couldn't you just give them some of your money?" she wondered.

"No, that isn't how it happened and it takes more than money to raise a baby." My heart is racing thinking what the next question might be. Fortunately for me, that was the end.

"Can I wear this head band to day camp tomorrow?" she asks.

"You sure can, baby."

As many times as I have "practiced" answering the adoption questions, I am still scared to death the entire conversation because we didn't adopt through a nice, pretty, private agency where young girls turn in their time of need. We chose to adopt through CPS which means our children were taken and not given. How do you explain poverty and neglect to a 6 year old? How do I understand the complexities of it myself at 36? How do I explain the end result of multiple generations of poverty, drugs, little to no education, and neglect when I don't even understand?

I think the scariest questions my parents feared were about sex. And I am sure my heart will race through that conversation as well. My family has so many issues to discuss and questions to answer that innocent inquiries about sex seem sorta easy in comparison. I remember where I was and what we were doing when my mom and I had the sex conversation. For years I thought it was only done to make a baby. I don't think we ever talked about it again. When Madison was born, I decided I wanted there to be on going conversations in our home about race, adoption, and sex. Of course, I made that decision before Madison could talk, having no idea how terrifying those conversations would be! I don't want her to remember where she was and what we were doing when she found out A) she is black and I am not B) she is adopted C) she's gonna want to have sex.

So why do I want to cry after having this open and honest exchange with Maddie about her birth parents? I am the luckiest woman in the world to have this child as my daughter. Why am I sad? I am sad because someone had to lose for me to win. I am sad because my daughter is verbalizing questions that will haunt her entire life. I am sad because deep down inside I know my daughter lost a piece of herself when she lost the connection to her birth mother and I would rather swallow glass than see my baby hurt. But this is life and this is how her life has played out. I can't change it. I can only help her through it. Lord, give me and every other adoptive mother in the world the strength and the compassion to help our babies make peace with their beginnings. Wondering "what if" does not lesson the enormity of my role in her life....Right?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Hard Questions

It was a typical Friday afternoon and I was picking up my 6 year old from summer day camp. I was reading a notice about the outing for the following week when I heard my daughter talking to her friend. I didn't know the friend and it became obvious very quickly the friend didn't know our family either.

"She can't be your mom! Your skin don't match!" the new friend shrieked.

I turned around to see another brown 6 year old standing next to my own, whose face was now a mile long. My heart broke. I could see the embarrassment written all over my daughter. We have talked about these moments and even practiced with her what to say when someone questions the make up of our family. She knows that families come in all shapes and shades. She knows we all match on the inside even when our outsides don't. None of this mattered on a Friday afternoon in August at the YMCA summer day camp.

I quickly introduced myself to the new friend. Her father walked in the door seconds after her comment and I introduced myself to him as well. I asked the usual get-to-know-you-questions like where do you go to school, what grade are you in, do you live near by, maybe we can have a play date sometime soon. I was in saleswoman mode, selling the concept of my family to this one.

It didn't help much. Madison just stared at the ground. I wanted to throw up. I know you know what this feels like. I know you know how much it hurts a mother to watch her child in pain. We loaded into the mini van and headed home. I tried to talk about how she felt when the new friend questioned how I could be Madison's mother, but my baby wasn't talking. She would only nod her head in response to my questions.

Yes, she was embarrased.
Yes, the conversation made her feel bad.
Yes, she wished I was brown instead of pink.

I know this isn't the first time and certainly won't be the last time someone in my house is going to wish I was brown. Life would be so much easier if we all matched. Unfortunatly, that is never going to happen no matter what I do or say. Kindergartners are very accepting of differences, but I am not so naive to think life as a transracial family will stay so simple. When we first considered adoption, I thought love was enough. Period. Love could conquer all and fix everything. Six years later I know otherwise. While love is essential to any family, it takes more to make it through the hard times.

I love my children more than I could even explain. I love my children so much it scares me sometimes. I make lots of mistakes with the very best of intentions. I wish I could take away her pain when someone makes her feel less than ideal. I can't take it away. So instead I try to show her how to handle these situations. In hindsight (and with a little help from my pink parent brigade), I wish I had turned that experience into a teaching moment for the new friend. I wish I had addressed the confusion about my being Madison's mom head on. I wish I could have showed Madison how to address the question directly rather than just try to win a friend. I wasn't ready this time, but I will be ready the next time. And there will be a next time. This I know for sure.